Herb Van Fleet: The problems with demanding equality | Columns

It seems like almost every person in our society these days is seeking equality — economic equality, racial equality, gender equality, legal and social equality, health care equality, educational equality, opportunity equality, and on and on. Those who plead for equality are obviously seeking a remedy for inequality. In that regard, they see themselves as victims.

But as George Orwell reminded us, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Orwell knew intuitively that equality as a practical matter does not exist. Each of us was born at different times, in different places, into different cultures, into different societies and with different genomes. And we each take different pathways as we age. So it’s memes and genes that propel us through life.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Well, not “all” men. Blacks and Native Americans were clearly excluded. And no women at all — half the human race! Equality in Jefferson’s day was limited to free white males who owned property, including, no doubt, slaves. But in their writings, Jefferson and the other founders intended equality to mean people who are of equal moral worth and who deserve equal treatment under the law, notwithstanding the aforementioned hypocrisy.

Of course, the notion of equality has changed since the founding to become much more inclusive. The 14th Amendment says all citizens have “equal protection under the law.” And yet the core principle of equality is often contingent, relative, conditional or just ignored. This is especially true of minority classes including African-Americans, Native Americans, the poor and the disabled. And, yes, I would include women here too.

Worse, the Supreme Court has taken it upon itself to decide from time to time what equality means. Equality, it seems, has become a moving target under the law.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1835 masterpiece “Democracy in America,” wrote that, “However energetically society in general may strive to make all the citizens equal and alike, the personal pride of each individual will always make him try to escape from the common level, and he will form some inequality somewhere to his own profit.” Now, think of our democracy today as it races toward a plutocracy and you’ll appreciate Tocqueville’s prophetic reasoning.

Then there is the egalitarian interpretation of equality. This is where the notions of equal treatment, equal respect, equal worth and equal social status come in. These attributes are often seen by their adherents as moral imperatives. Egalitarians believe in a sameness quality. And that is the stuff of socialism, Marxism, communism and anarchism. This ideology, even in its various forms, is the path to mediocrity; change is static, progress is slowed.

Egalitarianism is anathema to a heterogeneous, capitalistic society like ours. Virtually all of our institutions operate under hierarchies where differences matter. Hierarchies are often the path to power, and power is the stuff of authoritarianism, despotism, dictatorships and autocracy — tyranny. And meritocracy is the rule here, with the accumulation of wealth as the prevailing ethic.

Obviously, the egalitarians are on the political left and the authoritarians are on the political right. The gap between these opposites has widened over the years. The left warns of a police state, the subjugation of minorities, rampant inequalities and the need for political correctness. They see a diminution of their liberty interests by the dictates of the state.

The right consists of those who are “all” created equal in the way Jefferson meant. These are the white supremacists, the neo-Nazis, the religious extremists and the anti-government supporters. They are also the robber barons, the money grubbers, the idolizers of materialism.

Because we are each different — memes and genes — we fall across the political spectrum: some at the extremes, some in the middle. But the middle is eroding, and the extremes on both ends are taking hold as never before. The result is a divided and dysfunctional government that has lost sight of its purpose. And democracy, what little is left of it, is at risk of committing suicide.

To underscore the foregoing, I would just end by paraphrasing the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He was writing about rights, so I have substituted the word equalities: “In proportion to the want of happiness resulting from the want of (equalities), a reason exists for wishing that there were such things as (equalities). But reasons for wishing there were such things as equalities, are not equalities — a reason for wishing that a certain (equality) were established, is not that equality — want is not supply — hunger is not bread.”


HERB VAN FLEET, a former Joplin resident, lives in Tulsa, Okla.